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How Do Hurricanes Get Their Names?

Isaias. Mitch. Andrew. Jimena. How hurricanes get their names, and why you'll see some names twice and others never again.

By
Samantha Enslen, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #783
The Quick And Dirty

Hurricane names are determined by the World Meteorological Organization. There are nine groups of names, for nine regions of the world where storms strike. Names often repeat, but names of storms that cause severe destruction, such as Hurricane Katrina, are never used again.

2020 has been a challenging year. We don’t know what the second half will bring. The way things are going, it could be Godzilla, it could be aliens. Maybe we’ll be lucky, and it will just be hurricanes.

In fact, we’re smack in the middle of hurricane season in the U.S.—it runs from July to September in the Northern Hemisphere and January to March in the Southern Hemisphere. With that in mind, we started thinking about how hurricanes and other storms get their names. 

Hurricanes = typhoons = tropical cyclones

First of all, hurricanes themselves are called different things in different parts of the world. When they form in the North Atlantic and eastern North Pacific they’re called “hurricanes.” If they form in the western North Pacific near China, Japan, and the Philippines, they’re called “typhoons.” And if they form in the western South Pacific or Indian Ocean, they’re called “tropical cyclones.”

Regardless of the name, they’re all the same—spinning storms that start over tropical waters. They have high winds of 74 mph or more, heavy rain, and storm surges. These surges can raise ocean waters up to 20 feet above normal. Needless to say, hurricanes present a deadly threat to people in coastal communities.

Hurricanes were first named after the place they landed

Humans have undoubtedly suffered because of hurricanes since our earliest days. And back then, we simply called them by the name of wherever they hit. Thus we have the Hakata Bay Typhoon of 1281, the Calcutta Cyclone of 1737, and the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

The Calcutta Cyclone was one of the deadliest in history. It threw a 40-foot storm surge into the Ganges River Delta, destroying 20,000 ships and killing more than 300,000 people. The Galveston Hurricane is the worst in U.S. history. It sent water surging 15 feet high, swallowing Galveston Island and the Texas coast, and killing some 8,000 people.

A hurricane near Japan inspired the term ‘kamikaze’

The Hakata Bay Typhoon of 1291 is noteworthy because of its place in history. It struck the coast of Japan right when the great Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan, was attacking the country. The huge typhoon struck the bay where his forces were moored. They tried to retreat to sea—but didn’t make it. Four thousand ships and 140,000 soldiers were lost. 

Just seven years earlier, another typhoon had struck during a previous Mongol invasion. That one drowned 13,000 men. 

After these events, the Japanese word “kamikaze,” meaning “divine wind,” was coined. And why not? Two storms had just destroyed two invading forces. It must have seemed logical that the gods were deliberately protecting Japan from its enemies.

The word “kamikaze,” by the way, is a combination of “kami,” the word for a nature spirit in the Japanese Shinto religion, and “kaze,” meaning “wind.” In World War II, the ideograph for this word was used by special attack units of the Japanese navy. Japanese pilots flew planes full of explosives directly into enemy targets. 

To this day, a “kamikaze mission” means a “suicide mission,” and a “kamikaze” can be anyone who acts in a self-destructive way, especially if they’re doing it for a cause. 

Anyway—back to hurricanes. 

Hurricanes were later given human names

During World War II, storms were given names that matched radio code names for letters of the alphabet—Able51 or Baker32, for example. They were also referred to by coordinates of their latitude and longitude.

In 1953, the U.S. National Hurricane Center began giving storms human names. The idea was to promote safety by helping people easily recognize storm names in warning messages. A name like “Ana” or “Marco” is easier to remember than “29.5N 79.6W,” for example.

Originally, all the names picked out for storms were female. In 1979, men’s names were added, and they now alternate with women’s names. 

Hurricanes have different names in different parts of the world

Eventually, an international committee of the World Meteorological Organization took over naming storms. 

The WMO set up nine sets of names for nine world regions, from the North Atlantic to the Southwest Indian Ocean. Each region has its own set of male and female names. Some lists are alphabetical, but some aren’t. Some have contributions from countries in the region. In the Northern Indian Ocean region, for example, names come from Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

The North Atlantic region, which includes the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, has six separate lists of names. Those lists are recycled every six years. 

The first storm of the year gets the first name at the top of the list. This year, we started with Arthur, Bertha, and Cristobal, and we’ll end with Vicky and Wilfred—if we get that many storms.

The names used in other regions reflect names that are common in that area. For example, names on the Eastern North Pacific list include Jimena, Ileana, and Tico. The Central North Pacific list has Akoni, Lala, and Huko. And the Western North Pacific list has Sanba, Fengshen, and Noru. 

By the way, odd weather systems don’t get names like these until they reach tropical storm strength. Meteorologists do track them before that, but they simply give them a number.  

The names of destructive hurricanes are retired

The lists of storm names are revisited regularly, and names of deadly storms are often retired. The name “Mitch,” for example, was removed from the list in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch poured rain, mudslides, and floods across Central America, taking some 10,000 lives. 

Mitch was a Category 5 hurricane, which brings us to the final fact of the day about hurricane naming. They are rated on the “Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale,” which assigns storms a rating of 1 through 5 based on their sustained wind speed. 

All hurricanes are dangerous, but Category 3 and higher are considered major storms that cause catastrophic damage. Category 1 winds start at 74 mph. Category 5 winds hit 157 mph or higher. 

A long-ago hurricane inspired 'The Tempest'

And here’s a final bit of history:

We don’t know what category the storm was that hit a fleet of ships sailing from England to Virginia way back in 1609, but we do know that one of the ships, the Sea Venture, was blown off course and ran aground on an uninhabited island—the place we now call Bermuda. The settlers built two new ships, “Patience” and “Deliverance,” and many sailed on to Virginia—though others chose to stay behind. 

One of those who returned, William Strachey, published an eye-witness account of what happened, titled “A True Reportory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight.” His story is believed to have influenced William Shakespeare to write a play called “The Tempest.” 

To this day, “The Tempest” remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular and most frequently produced plays. I guess that’s one tiny benefit of the deadly storms we call “hurricanes.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Sources

Encyclopedia Britannica. Tropical Cyclones, Naming Systems. By Subscription Only. Accessed July 14, 2020. 

Hurricanes: Science and Society. 1281 Hakata Bay Typhoon, 1609 Colonization of Bermuda. Accessed July 14, 2020.

National Hurricane Center and Central Pacific Hurricane Center. Glossary of NHC Terms, Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Accessed July 14, 2020.

National Ocean Service. What’s the Difference Between a Hurricane and a Typhoon? Accessed July 14, 2020.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Kamikaze, Kanji. By Subscription Only. Accessed July 14, 2020.

Shakespearances.com. Ranking the Bard’s Plays by Stage Popularity. Accessed July 14, 2020.

Strachey, William. A True Reportory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight. British Library Collection. Accessed July 14, 2020.

The Weather Channel. Tropical Storm Fay Drenches the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast (Recap), July 11, 2020. Accessed July 14, 2020.

World Meteorological Organization. Tropical Cyclone Naming. Accessed July 14, 2020.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.